Climate Summit 2017

Bonn climate change talks: Three challenges India will face as it tries to protect its interests

Negotiations this fortnight on the finer details of the 2015 Paris Agreement are likely to generate a lot of heat.

In 2015, when 197 countries reached a compromise to draw up the Paris Agreement on containing the effects of climate change, it was clear that the resolution of several key differences had merely been postponed. As negotiations begin in Bonn on November 6 on the rules to govern that agreement, these differences will have to be addressed.

However, participants have already sensed that these differences may not be ironed out either at this round of negotiations between the 197 member-countries to the UN Framework Convention on Climate Change or the next one, which will also be held in 2018. Already, some are suggesting that an extra round of talks will be needed next year to prepare the rules in time for the Paris Agreement to go into effect from 2020.

Here are some of the challenges expected to play out.

The pre-2020-agenda

One of the first sticking points will be what people involved with climate-change discussions call “the pre-2020 agenda”.

In 2010, each of the developed countries pledged to reduce their annual greenhouse gas emissions by specific levels by 2020 and even enhance these commitments if necessary. Alongside, they committed to mobilise $100 billion a year starting from 2020 for the rest of the world to fight climate change. They undertook to assist the developing world with acquiring cleaner technologies to ensure that poorer countries do not become as dependent on fossil fuels as rich nations have been historically. In addition, developed countries that had signed up to the second phase of the Kyoto Protocol of 1997 to reduce emissions were required to ratify the agreement and act according to its rules. In turn, developing countries such as India and China also pledged emission reductions, not in absolute terms but on a relative basis.

However, when the list of items for discussion at the Bonn talks was drafted in September, India and many other developing countries found that it had not allotted any time to discuss the pre-2020 agenda. Several developing countries have already raised a red flag about this at preparatory meetings in September and October.

The pre-2020 commitments are of significant interest to the larger developing economies. In the pre-2020 period, most of the obligations – to reduce emissions and to provide finance and technology – sit on the shoulders of the developed world. This acknowledges the fact that climate change has so far largely been caused by rich countries burning fossil fuels since the Industrial Revolution. Now, as developing countries try to raise their standards of living, they will have to bear the substantial additional costs of growing in an environmentally sustainable way.

Credit: Wikimedia Commons
Credit: Wikimedia Commons

If the developed countries do not meet their obligations over the next three years, developing countries will have to share that burden in the post-2020 period. That is because the Paris Agreement requires developing countries, particularly large emerging economies, to take a greater obligation for reduction of emissions after 2020. Until 2020, only developed countries were required to reduce emissions. Developing countries could chose not to unless they got finance and technology from the rich nations.

A much-discussed review by global civil society groups in 2015 of pre-2020 emission reduction pledges showed that while countries like China and India had undertaken to bear more than their fair share of responsibility, developed countries had not. An Indian government report in 2015 showed how rich countries were not providing the money they had promised but were instead resorting to creative accounting to claim they had.

Many developing countries, including India, are expected to fight against the pre-2020 agenda being killed in Bonn. Demanding that it be included provisionally in the agenda at this fortnight’s meeting will be the first step. Getting all countries to agree to actually discuss will be the next and more difficult step.

Facilitative Dialogue 2018

The biggest question in Bonn for negotiators will be how and when countries should enhance their commitments under the Paris Agreement. Should this be done even before the agreement kicks off or after a few years of monitoring actions to reduce emissions levels?

In Bonn, the incoming president of the talks, Fiji, has put its weight behind making an iron-clad arrangement to get countries to review and enhance their existing commitments on emissions reduction even before the Paris Agreement kicks off. This is in the shape of what the climate negotiators call the “Facilitative Dialogue 2018”.

Under the Paris Agreement, countries listed time-bound targets to fight climate change. These are a country’s Nationally Determined Contribution. Developed countries expressed targets for reducing their greenhouse gas emissions in absolute terms. Developing countries such as India committed to targets for relative reductions in emissions growth, along with listing their needs for finance and technology to achieve these goals.

Under the UN Framework Convention on Climate Change, under which Paris Agreement is stitched, developing countries have a right to access finance and technology from developed countries – the “means to implementation”, in technical terms – to reach their targets.

“Developed countries have attempted in many ways to delink their obligations to provide finance and technology from actions of developing world,” said a senior negotiator from India. “We would not like to see the Facilitative Dialogue 2018 to become yet another vehicle for the developed countries to ride out of their obligations post-2020.”

But the two rounds of discussions in the run-up to the Bonn meet have indicated that it will not be easy to settle this debate. Some smaller developing countries that have small emission footprints (and therefore fewer concerns about the costs of reducing emissions) have been asking for others to ratchet up their targets to cut emissions. They do not emphasise that enhancing the targets of developing countries should be dependent in part on how much funds and technology developed countries will provide.

Credit: Ajay Verma/Reuters
Credit: Ajay Verma/Reuters

Early harvest

The concerns about the Facilitative Dialogue are linked to another debate that will run as a common theme through all negotiation rooms at Bonn – on an early harvest of decisions.

The Paris Agreement recognised that there are six pillars in the fight against climate change: mitigation, finance and technology transfer, adaptation, capacity building of developing countries and transparency of actions. But member-countries accord differing degrees of importance to each of these pillars. Going by their strategic needs, member-countries often try to advance negotiations on selective strands while dragging on others.

To prevent an imbalance in the final outcome of the talks, UN climate negotiations usually resort to a simple practice: nothing gets decided till everything is decided. Even negotiating strands that have reached conclusions are kept on hold till agreements are reached across all strands. This allows countries to see the full picture before they all agree to all the decisions.

But several developing countries including India fear that this convention could get shelved this year if the work on rules for several mitigation-related and transparency-related issues is concluded this year, even as rule-making for other pillars of the Paris Agreement is postponed to the next year. This could happen because the presiding country, Fiji, may want to highlight some progress to claim credit for successful negotiations. It could be aided by countries that would gain strategically from advancing work only on mitigation and yet others that would not lose much either way.

“We are not in favour of early and selective harvest of decisions,” the Indian negotiation said. “The Paris Agreement was secured by ensuring a delicate balance between different elements. That balance has to be respected in the implementation arrangements for the agreement as well. It is essential to see the full picture before we sign agree.”

These big ticket decisions will need the intervention of ministers to resolve. But there are several other important concerns that will see heated arguments across the negotiation floor.

Six of these are:

  1. Money to run the Climate Change convention and its secretariat: Should the money be divided equally between all elements of Paris Agreement or focused on only emission reduction efforts?
  2. The global stocktaking of countries’ targets: Should the review and enhancement of greenhouse gas emission reduction targets of country in the next round of commitments be based on the principle of equity and how should countries define equity?
  3. The obligations of countries under Paris Agreements or Nationally Determined Contributions: Should these be centred only around emission reduction targets or also reflect how developed countries supported others with finance and technology?
  4. Rules for transparency and compliance: Should these rules treat all except the poorest countries equally from the start or should the rules be different for developing and developed countries to begin with and converge over time? Should the requirements of disclosure be as detailed and strict for delivery of finance by developed countries as it is going to be for emission reduction actions of all nations?
  5. The Adaptation Fund set up under Kyoto Protocol: What is its future under the Paris Agreement when Kyoto Protocol ends in 2020?
  6. A quantified goal for climate finance: How much money should developed countries provide annually to the rest under Paris Agreement? Should discussions on the goal start now or in 2023-’24, as some developed countries desire?

    This is the second article in a two-part series on the challenges of the Bonn climate change talks.
Support our journalism by subscribing to Scroll+ here. We welcome your comments at
Sponsored Content BY 

Do you really need to use that plastic straw?

The hazards of single-use plastic items, and what to use instead.

In June 2018, a distressed whale in Thailand made headlines around the world. After an autopsy it’s cause of death was determined to be more than 80 plastic bags it had ingested. The pictures caused great concern and brought into focus the urgency of the fight against single-use plastic. This term refers to use-and-throw plastic products that are designed for one-time use, such as takeaway spoons and forks, polythene bags styrofoam cups etc. In its report on single-use plastics, the United Nations Environment Programme (UNEP) has described how single-use plastics have a far-reaching impact in the environment.

Dense quantity of plastic litter means sights such as the distressed whale in Thailand aren’t uncommon. Plastic products have been found in the airways and stomachs of hundreds of marine and land species. Plastic bags, especially, confuse turtles who mistake them for jellyfish - their food. They can even exacerbate health crises, such as a malarial outbreak, by clogging sewers and creating ideal conditions for vector-borne diseases to thrive. In 1988, poor drainage made worse by plastic clogging contributed to the devastating Bangladesh floods in which two-thirds of the country was submerged.

Plastic litter can, moreover, cause physiological harm. Burning plastic waste for cooking fuel and in open air pits releases harmful gases in the air, contributing to poor air quality especially in poorer countries where these practices are common. But plastic needn’t even be burned to cause physiological harm. The toxic chemical additives in the manufacturing process of plastics remain in animal tissue, which is then consumed by humans. These highly toxic and carcinogenic substances (benzene, styrene etc.) can cause damage to nervous systems, lungs and reproductive organs.

The European Commission recently released a list of top 10 single-use plastic items that it plans to ban in the near future. These items are ubiquitous as trash across the world’s beaches, even the pristine, seemingly untouched ones. Some of them, such as styrofoam cups, take up to a 1,000 years to photodegrade (the breakdown of substances by exposure to UV and infrared rays from sunlight), disintegrating into microplastics, another health hazard.

More than 60 countries have introduced levies and bans to discourage the use of single-use plastics. Morocco and Rwanda have emerged as inspiring success stories of such policies. Rwanda, in fact, is now among the cleanest countries on Earth. In India, Maharashtra became the 18th state to effect a ban on disposable plastic items in March 2018. Now India plans to replicate the decision on a national level, aiming to eliminate single-use plastics entirely by 2022. While government efforts are important to encourage industries to redesign their production methods, individuals too can take steps to minimise their consumption, and littering, of single-use plastics. Most of these actions are low on effort, but can cause a significant reduction in plastic waste in the environment, if the return of Olive Ridley turtles to a Mumbai beach are anything to go by.

To know more about the single-use plastics problem, visit Planet or Plastic portal, National Geographic’s multi-year effort to raise awareness about the global plastic trash crisis. From microplastics in cosmetics to haunting art on plastic pollution, Planet or Plastic is a comprehensive resource on the problem. You can take the pledge to reduce your use of single-use plastics, here.

This article was produced by the Scroll marketing team on behalf of National Geographic, and not by the Scroll editorial team.